Monday, June 25, 2012

Missions and Discipleship

Last week our Sr. High students were on a mission trip to Philadelphia; this morning our Middle School students left to go there.  Mission trips have been a regular part of our Student Ministry for well over a decade.  This is normal for our students; to them, this is one of the things Student Ministry is all about, and they probably can’t envision a Student Ministry without mission trips.
But it wasn’t always the case.  When I was growing up in church, Youth Ministry (that’s what it was called back then) was about youth retreats, Bible studies, lock-ins, and fun trips to King’s Dominion.  And meeting girls.  Had to mention that, since I married a girl I met in the youth group.  And the truth is, back before I could drive, for the most part I saw Pam in church.  95% of our “dates” consisted of being with each other at youth retreats, Bible studies, lock-ins, and fun trips to King’s Dominion.  I’d like to think I was a very spiritual teenager, but it’s closer to the truth to say that I just wanted to be with this very cute girl.
Student Ministry has changed, and that change is actually quite recent.  When Richard arrived 14 years ago the youth ministry was primarily about youth retreats, Bible studies, lock-ins, etc.  They took trips, but the trips were to things like Centrifuge, which was basically a week-long retreat filled with Bible studies, fun activities, and worship.  But after a couple of years Richard started eschewing CentriFuge for MissionFuge, which kept some of the elements of Centrifuge but only in the evenings; the days were filled with missions work.  Since then he has mixed in straight missions trips to places like New Orleans and Mexico with MissionFuge.
We are also seeing this shift occurring in church life in general.  I don’t ever remember the church I grew up in sponsoring a mission trip.  We took up offerings to support missionaries, but none of us “back home” ever went on the mission field and got involved ourselves.  The extent of our involvement was financial support, prayer, and attending classes to learn what missionaries did on the mission field.  But we began to sense that something more was needed; something more was required of us.  Jesus command to go into all the world and make disciples became more personal, and it didn’t seem enough to pay someone else to go into all the world and make disciples.
Some question whether such trips actually do more than placate a guilty conscience with the idea that we’re actually doing something.  What good, some ask, is going someplace for one measly week, and then leaving?  There’s some merit to that if that is indeed what is going on, but for the most part it’s not.  These trips are to established areas of mission work, usually helping missionaries who are there year-round do things they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.  And while any one individual or groups leave after one week, they usually are following one group and will be followed by another.  The actually presence of Christian groups doing ministry is thus extended for weeks, months, or even years.  MissionFuge has been in Philadelphia every summer for many years.  The work is cumulative.  When Richard took young people to Mexico, they were part of a group that built a medical center one week at a time, one group at a time.  Eventually the center was built.
This Christmas a group from our church is going on a mission trip to Belize to work with missionaries from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.  We are following that with another trip to the same place next June, with plans to establish an ongoing relationship between our church and the ministry there.  We hope that we will be sending groups there at least twice a year, but the real hope is that we’ll have a stream of groups going, perhaps three or four each summer and more throughout the rest of the year.  In that way we can join with others in being the presence of Christ, ministering on a consistent basis and forming ongoing relationships with new friends in Belize.
I am convinced that discipleship is incomplete without missions, that in fact discipleship without missions is not discipleship at all.  I am all for the spiritual disciplines which develop our personal relationship with God, but without missions such discipleship can just be an expression of our self-absorption, our desire to have our lives be happy and fulfilled, as if God created the world so that humans could feel good.  Missions helps to get us out of the mode of feeding into our lives and into the mode of feeding into other's lives.  It gets us out of our world and into God's world.  It moves the focus from trying to figure out what God's will for our lives is to see that God is at work in the world, and his will for the world doesn't need to be figured out, it's plain to see.  And then missions moves us from using the spiritual disciplines to find ourselves to using them to lose ourselves to something bigger.
And that may not lead to happiness, but it seems to me that it will lead to fulfillment and significance, and it's hard to see how a person who is living a life of significance would be at all dissatisfied with their lives.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Creepy Jesus

One of my neighbors knocked on our door last weekend, and when Pam let her in she was carrying a large framed picture.  I was upstairs and couldn’t see what it was, but I heard my neighbor, who is a nurse who works in a senior center, explain that it was a picture that used to belong to one of the residents, a mentally challenged woman named Carolyn.  Carolyn had no family, but she was much loved by my neighbor and her family.  When Carolyn passed away last year, the few possessions she owned were given to my neighbor.
Among them was a somewhat well-known picture of Jesus based on Revelation 3:2, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”  The picture shows Jesus standing outside a door, waiting for it to be opened for him.  There is no doorknob on the outside; it must be opened from the inside.  You don’t need me to explain the theological significance of that.
But that’s not the point.  My neighbor was bringing the picture to us because she didn’t know what to do with it.  She’s kept it in her garage, but she didn’t want it in her house.  She didn’t want to keep it.
Because it’s in 3-D.  3-D Jesus.  You don’t need to be wearing special glasses or anything; he just kind of pops out at you.  Trust me, it is a little disconcerting. 
She said she used to ask Carolyn, “Carolyn, doesn’t that picture bother you?”  And Carolyn would always say, “No, I like it.”
But my neighbor said, “It’s kinda creepy.”  Yeah.
She brought it to us because she couldn’t bring herself to throw it away, not because of it’s attachment to Carolyn but because it’s Jesus. 
“I can’t just put Jesus on the curb with the rest of the trash, can I?”
I have people come up to me all the time for spiritual counsel—at the gym, at the grocery store, while I’m eating at restaurants—and for all kinds of reasons. 
“Where is that verse that goes…”
“Will we see our pets in heaven?”
“Are Mormons Christian?”
But this was a first.  Is it wrong to throw 3-D Jesus away, even if it creeps you out?
Like I said, I’m upstairs listening while my neighbor is on the landing explaining her problem to me and Pam, so I can’t see the picture.  I can’t get the full effect of the 3-D.
So I ask her, “Does Jesus look at all Jewish in the picture?”
“Does he look like some guy from Michigan or Minnesota?”
“Then throw it away if you want.”
“I know.  But I can’t.”
What do you do when you have a creepy 3-D picture of Jesus that you want to get rid of?  Apparently you take it to your pastor-neighbors and let them do it.  I guess because we won’t get in as much trouble for it as someone else might.
So now 3-D Jesus is by our front door.  No one has taken him out to the trash yet.
Maybe I’ll use it to scare away the salesmen who keep knocking on our door trying to give me free estimates on new windows or siding.  Or those young people trying to sell me magazines so they can go to Hawaii.  Just open the door holding the picture in front of me.
Maybe I can work a deal with the Mormons the next time they come.  I’ll listen to them for thirty minutes, but they have to agree to take 3-D Jesus with them.  Let the Mormons throw 3-D Jesus away.
I mean, I love Jesus—but the 1st century Jewish 2nd person of the Trinity version, not the creepy 3-D white-guy-from-Minnesota version.